The Master & Margarita’ adapted for film

The Master & Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov started writing The Master and Margarita in 1929 and continued to rewrite it for many years. At one point he even burned the manu­script but resur­rected it again. He was still working on it up until a few weeks before his death in 1940. A censored version was published in Russia in 1967 and a slightly fuller trans­la­tion, based on a samizdat edition, was published in the west in 1968.

It achieved cult status quickly and still retains it today (it allegedly inspired the lyrics of Sympathy For The Devil when Mari­anne Faithful gave it to Mick Jagger to read). It is a novel that can be read and enjoyed on many levels: as a piece of fantasy, as a love story, as a polit­ical satire. Written during the Stalinist era, one of Russia’s most brutally repressive periods, it is a strangely rebel­lious book with a life-affirming and anarch­istic spirit that readers still respond to.

The book is set in Moscow in the 1930s and has three main storylines, two of which are inter­woven. The central story is about an unnamed writer called “The Master” whose work has been censored and suppressed by various bureau­crats to the point where he becomes deeply depressed and is committed to a lunatic asylum. (This story has the strongest element of auto­bi­o­graphy – at one point, the Master even burns the manu­script of a book he has written, although it is restored to him later).

The Master is in love with an unhap­pily married woman called Margarita who determ­ines to rescue him. To do this, she enlists the help of a foreign gentleman visiting Moscow called Professor Woland, who is none other than Satan in disguise. In the second story-line: Woland and his retinue, including a large black cat, amuse them­selves by playing tricks on petty communist offi­cials and on ordinary Muscov­ites, who are far from immune to the tempta­tions of free money and designer clothes.

The third story concerns the contents of the burned book iself: a fictional account of the meeting between Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate. Here Bulgakov takes the oppor­tunity for some philo­soph­ical debate, but in the very gentlest way, and with char­ac­ters who are portrayed as essen­tially flawed and human. This is typical of a book that is decept­ively simple and light in its tone but, at the same time, multilayered, thought provoking and affecting.

The book has been adapted many times: for the stage, film, tele­vi­sion and even as a graphic novel. Here are three contrasting adapt­a­tions that feature one of the epis­odes in the book, Professor Woland’s public perform­ance in Moscow.

Click the expand icon (bottom right) to view clips at full screen

The Master & Margarita 1972

Directed by Aleksandar Petrovic with various writers cred­ited for the script, this joint Italian-Yugoslavian produc­tion tries to squeeze the book into a feature-length format by jettis­oning many of its subtleties in favour of a simple love story with a super­nat­ural element.

The Master (he is actu­ally given a name in this version, contrary to Bulgakov’s express inten­tions) is a successful writer who has written a contro­ver­sial play about Pontius Pilate and is locked up in a mental asylum. Margarita, portrayed here by Mimsy Farmer as an acqui­es­cent blonde, colludes with Woland to help him. The play is performed with Woland’s magic show (shown here) as a curtain raiser.

The Adapt­a­tion

This is a fairly loose adapt­a­tion but not lacking in vitality or style. Italian taste domin­ates both in the music and cine­ma­to­graphy. One original touch is not to show Behemoth, the black cat, as an actor in a suit (always a little clumsy) but as a cine­matic on-screen flash of snarling teeth.

Ulti­mately though the super­nat­ural side of the story mixes uneasily with the more conven­tional elements as though the adapters couldn’t quite make up their minds what genre the film belongs to.


The Master & Margarita 1988

Directed and adapted by Maciej Wojtyszko, this four-part tele­vi­sion adapt­a­tion was produced in Poland on a fairly modest budget which shows in some of the more spec­tac­ular scenes.

The Adapt­a­tion

Despite this, it remained fairly faithful to the book and was performed with theat­rical vigour by an exper­i­enced cast of seasoned Polish actors. Poland has a strong heritage of surreal­istic fantasy, often with a polit­ical subtext, on stage, as well as on film; under­stand­ably the material takes on some of this flavour in its execu­tion. This inter­pret­a­tion defin­itely bene­fits from an East European sens­ib­ility though, some­thing the Italian version lacked.

This extract shows an earlier part of the scene where women in the audi­ence are given fash­ion­able Parisian clothes to wear; clothes that will vanish later leaving them in their under­wear. The atmo­sphere and music are more cabaret in style and the venue is smaller. The char­acter of Faggot, Woland’s demonic assistant, is also played in a more voluble and aggressive manner.

Only avail­able in a slightly murky VHS version, it’s perhaps unfair to compare it on a quality basis but it lacks the polish and flair of the Russian version.



The Master & Margarita 2005

Directed (and presum­ably adapted) by Vladimir Bortko, who had previ­ously adapted another Bulgakov work “Heart of A Dog”, this eight hour, ten-part miniseries was first shown on Russian tele­vi­sion in 2005. Despite some crit­ical hostility from acolytes of the author, it was gener­ally well received by the public and achieved record viewing figures.

With a much larger budget than its Polish coun­ter­part, more time to explore the story, plus the advantage of filming in Russia, it would have been hard to fail but Bortko’s greatest achieve­ment is that he approaches the book with exactly the right blend of seri­ous­ness and whimsy. He accepts it on its own terms, as a kind of soph­ist­ic­ated fairy tale, part histor­ical drama and part allegory. For all these reasons, this comes closest to a defin­itive version.

The Adapt­a­tion

By thor­oughly grounding the story in an accurate portrayal of the period (each episode is prefaced by real footage from the thirties), the fant­astic elements are given more power. Even the cine­ma­to­graphy, which often uses faded and sepia tones, adds to the effect of looking through a long lens at some magical picture box from the past.

Added to all of this, there is a uniquely Russian romantic spirit that pervades the whole produc­tion that would be diffi­cult for anyone else to imitate successfully.

Woland, played here by Oleg Basilashvili, is the central figure in this version: inscrut­able and weary, a Satan who does get our sympathy. In the opening moments of the scene, as he studies the audi­ence, a sense of his immense age and power comes across. The scene itself is played with almost complete fidelity, down to the details of costume, but that is less important than its adher­ence to the inner truth of the story: that freedom is a myster­ious and dangerous commodity, some­thing that only the Devil can dispense.

David Clough ©2011

  • Reading your descrip­tion of the three different versions of Master and Margarita made my viewing of the films so much more rewarding!
    Because the intrinsic material is so good there is some­thing to be derived from all three versions but your under­standing of the various cultural differ­ences of the coun­tries in which the films were created enhance one’s know­ledge and under­standing and deepens the aware­ness of this incred­ible masterpiece!

    Many thanks


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